RPGs: Established Settings vs Homebrew Campaigns

The following question came up at one of my panels at PAX. I didn’t have time to address it there, but it’s a great topic and I’d like to hear all of your thoughts on the matter. But hey, as it’s my name on the website, I’ll start with my own…

Do you have any thoughts on the pros and cons of running a game in an established setting versus creating your own setting?

I’ve never actually run a game in any of the established D&D settings aside from Eberron. However, I’ve participated in those settings in other ways. I’ve read books set in the Forgotten Realms, and played Pools of Radiance and Baldur’s GatePlanescape: Torment may be my favorite CRPG, though I didn’t much care for the Blood Wars CCG. I read the initial Dragonlance novels and modules, and experienced Birthright through the strange lens of The Gorgon’s Alliance.

But I’ve never run a game in one of these worlds. I’ve always created my own campaign worlds. Well, unless you count the times I’ve run Call of Cthulhu… or Stormbringer… or the year I spent as a storyteller on a World of Darkness MUSH… or the many campaigns of Over The Edge I’ve run in the default setting of Al Amarja.

Whether you look at the worlds I’ve run in or the ones I’ve simply participated in, for me the preceding paragraphs address one of the biggest draws of an established setting… the ability to participate in it on multiple levels. I’ve never run a game in the Forgotten Realms. But because of the novels I’ve read and the computer games I’ve played, I could sit down with you and have an interesting conversation about the impact of the Time of Troubles or the Spellplague. We can play Lords of Waterdeep together, and even if we’ve never played a game of D&D together, we can both recognize the people and places referenced in the game. A friend of mine told me that his favorite thing about RPGs is that they create a personal mythology shared by a group of friends… a set of stories that bind that group together. When we utilize an established setting, we are sharing that mythology with thousands of tens of thousands of other people. We can draw on the wealth of material that’s been created by others, be it canon or otherwise. This last point is important because many of us are hard-pressed to find the time to come up with this week’s adventure, let alone to develop five different Cults of the Dragon Below or a glossary of the Goblin language. In the shared setting, these things have already been done for us.

So… advantages of the shared setting include the ease of acquiring material with a minimal investment of time; the potential to engage with the world in different mediums (not all established worlds have novels and computer games!); and the opportunity to draw inspiration from existing material, among others.

And yet, one of my favorite things about roleplaying is the opportunity to create and explore new worlds. I like taking an idea and considering the ramifications of it; developing cosmologies and conspiracies; considering paths of history. And most of all, I love seeing where a group of players go with those ideas. Creating a new setting gives you the opportunity to do things that no one else has thought of yet – to offer your players a chance to experience stories that simply can’t be told in Eberron or the Realms. Ravenloft, Planescape, Spelljammer, and Greyhawk all offer completely different experiences; you can certainly come up with one that’s different from all of them.

Playing in an established setting can also be a problem if the players know too much about the world–if the moment you introduce an NPC one of them says “Oh, he’s actually a spy for Cormyr, isn’t he?” and another says “No, no, he’s really a double agent for the Red Wizards.” Worst of all is if the established setting restricts what you can do – if you end up with a player saying “Didn’t you read novel X or sourcebook Y? That’s not how that works.” Obviously this sort of thing won’t happen in your own private world.

With that said, this sort of of thing never has to happen at all… as long as you view an established setting as a source of inspiration as opposed to canon you must abide by. This was what I enjoyed about Over The Edge, and the reason it’s the established setting I’ve used the most; yes, I’ve used the framework of it, but my Al Amarja and yours are sure to be different in many ways. This same principle carried over into Eberron. From the start, we’ve said that Eberron material should be a source of inspiration, but that you should always feel free to make the world your own. Do the gods exist? What caused the Mourning? Where’s the Tarrasque fit in the world? These questions are intentionally open, but even with the things that are defined in canon material I always encouraged people to change whatever they want. Do you want the Kalashtar to be the true evil fighting the virtuous Inspired? Run with it!

You’ll see this same principle in the new setting I’m developing… and I’ll be talking about that in more detail shortly. In creating the world, I want to give you a fascinating framework for creating stories, and a foundation that you can share with other people playing in the world. But I always want you to feel that this is inspiration rather than limitation – that you have room to explore your own ideas, to overwrite canon when it suits your needs, and to share your ideas with others who may prefer them to mine. A shared world gives us a common language and history, not to mention fiction, art, and other sources of inspiration. But at the end of the day, the individual stories will be created at your own table… and you should do whatever you want to make them your own.

Now, to answer the original question… what I enjoy about using established settings is the easy access to material that can add depth to the world, and the ability for my players to come to the table with a deeper understanding of and investment in the world. What I like about creating new worlds is the ability to do something unique and to give my players an experience they can’t get anywhere else. At the end of the day, what I generally end up doing is both: if I use an established setting, I will still change things to make it my own.

How about all of you?